An old movie scene comes to mind whenever the Sino-Japanese history wars flare up. You know the pattern: Beijing lodges some outlandish claim about Japan’s reverting to militarism. Tokyo assumes a defensive crouch, looking a tad shameful. Japan gets the worst of the exchange. Which is the point for China. The movie sequence that springs to mind comes from the classic National Lampoon comedy Animal House, It suggests how Japan can play diplomatic offense rather than remain perpetually on the defense.
That would be a welcome change, and not a minute too soon. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has committed far too many unforced errors during his first year in office. Publicly musing about whether Japan’s invasion of Korea qualified as an invasion was obtuse. And why even hint you’re considering retracting an apology to wartime Korean “comfort women” two decades after it was tendered?
That’s what you call self-defeating rhetoric. A good diplomatic rule of thumb: if it is not necessary to say something, it is necessary to say nothing.
Nevertheless, there is some candor that would abet Tokyo’s cause. Which brings us back to Hollywood. Set in 1962, Animal House takes place at the fictitious Faber College back in the days when reserve military training — a.k.a. Army ROTC — was mandatory for all male students. Here’s the scenario: ROTC student officers are abusing pledges from the screwball Delta Tau Chi fraternity within eyeshot of Delta upperclassmen Otter and Boon. The odious Niedermeyer berates the pledges. Pushups are ordered and —sort of — done. Misery prevails.
Otter exclaims, “He can’t do that to our pledges.” Replies Boon, “Only we can do that to our pledges!” Hilarity ensues as the fraternity brothers exact vengeance on the priggish army types. Methinks this exchange is evergreen because it’s zany and says something elemental about human nature — namely that people may take outsiders to task for deeds they excuse or softpedal if perpetrated among the in-crowd.
This dynamic dates back at least to classical Greeks’ concept of barbaros, or barbarians. In all likelihood it’s as old as humanity itself.
By barbaros, loosely speaking, ancient Greeks meant something like those guys, foreign peoples who practiced strange if not unintelligible customs. Herodotus, for instance, wrote extensively about exotic lands while showing little animus toward those who dwelt there. He was mainly just curious. Over time, though, barbarians took on the ominous overtones familiar to us today. Outsiders were not just strange. They were not just oddballs but menacing, worthy of fear and loathing.
So it was with Greeks of antiquity. So it is with their pseudo-Greek knockoffs on college campuses today. Now substitute Xi Jinping for Otter. (Betcha likening Xi to a frat boy is a Naval Diplomat first.) That lets Animal House illustrate the logic of Communist Chinese diplomacy vis-á-vis Japan. “Hey, you Japanese can’t do that to the Chinese people,” exclaim Chinese leaders. “Only we can do that to the Chinese people!!!”
Isn’t that what China’s leadership is essentially saying?
This is the ground where Tokyo should fight the history wars. Chancellor Willy Brandt’s apology on Germany’s behalf doubtless remains the gold standard for national contrition. Yet the leaders of democratic Japan have conceded the long-dead imperial regime’s wrongdoing. Tokyo has performed reasonably well in the apology department. It should continue owning up to Japanese history rather than dissembling.
But who was the 20th century’s biggest abuser of Chinese citizens? Not Japanese militarists but the Chinese Communist Party, the party responsible for the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and countless casualties from these self-inflicted traumas. And unlike Imperial Japan’s military potentates, the CCP remains alive and in power. The offender can and should atone for its crimes.
So if Beijing’s standard is that those who once abused the Chinese people should repent, then CCP poobahs should ‘fess up and make amends for their misbegotten past. Wanna take bets on when the latter will happen? Me neither. That’s the point. Welcome the debate. Let’s make China’s rulers defend the indefensible for a change.